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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Fellowship of Presbyterians
August 25, 2011

Doug Portz and I, along with representatives from a dozen or so churches in our presbytery, are headed this week to Minneapolis to attend a gathering sponsored by a group calling itself “The Fellowship of Presbyterians.” Doug and I will spend time with a group of presbytery executives in extended conversation and prayer. Anticipating this event has gotten me to thinking about the term “fellowship”….

The Greek word koinonia is usually translated either “fellowship” or “communion” in the 19 times it occurs in the New Testament. It means literally “in-commonness.” None of these words is very common in English, so the concept of koinonia can seem strange to us. Our closest ordinary words, “sharing” and “participation,” don’t quite do it full justice.

In the Bible, koinonia is the intimate relationship of distinct entities joined together into a single whole. It is more than a sense of affinity or agreement on particular viewpoints or collaboration on projects. It is abiding, not temporary or occasional.

One clue to its meaning for Paul is that he considers its opposite to be the relationship of light and darkness – they are permanently and everywhere incompatible. “What koinonia has light with darkness?” he asks rhetorically. (2 Corinthians 6:14) Wherever the one is, the other cannot be. Conversely, koinonia indicates inseparability.

Koinonia is one of the marks of the earliest Christian church, together with prayers, teaching, and breaking bread. (Acts 2:42) Interestingly, koinonia is something other than breaking bread. To understand “fellowship” as simply sharing a dinner in the church hall is to underestimate the depth of koinonia. According to Paul, the basis for our koinonia with each other is our koinonia in the body and blood of our Lord – in the bread and wine we are made one with Christ, and thus made one with each other. We don’t simply become partners with Christ – we become one with him.

Early this year several pastors in a long-term colleague group invited church leaders nationwide to come together, to consider the nature of our bonds of fellowship in the PCUSA. They testify that their informal koinonia is stronger and more life-giving than many of their relationships in our denominational structures. They want to explore how our denominational system might be reconfigured so that it becomes a nexus of true koinonia, and not just an alliance, coalition, or collection of folk with primarily a shared “brand name” in common. One way of asking this is, “How could presbytery be more fully an expression of our koinonia in Christ?” What is it about “presbytery as we know it” that gets in the way of our being deeply united in identity and mission?

For many folk in the “Fellowship,” a major current indicator of our failure to be in genuine koinonia is the recent removal of fidelity and chastity language from the ordination standards in our Book of Order. They contend that a division of belief on something as basic as God’s will for sexual behavior is a separation so grave that it discloses an absence of real koinonia among us.

This call for a more authentic koinonia in the church, especially in the wake of our recent Book of Order changes, has resonated deeply with many across the denomination. Expecting perhaps a few hundred to attend, the conveners have been inundated with some 2,000 registrations, more than the recent churchwide “Big Tent” gathering. Not all attendees will agree on whether the shift in Book of Order language constitutes a breach of our koinonia, yet we must acknowledge the depth of the sense of denominational disconnect many are feeling over this matter. Most of us long for our relationships to be richer and more life-giving than they are, and we fervently pray that our way of living together in presbyteries might better exhibit and strengthen the koinonia of the Holy Spirit. Might this week’s conference in Minneapolis help us toward that end? Next week I’ll report on this event in this space. Meanwhile, let us pray that this gathering will strengthen our koinonia where it is weak, and that it will lead us to a fuller and more visible union in Christ.

That we may be truly one in Christ.

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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